Time In Vietnam

A common sight in front of many businesses here.

A common sight in front of many businesses here.

Men playing a game in front of a temple.

Men playing a game in front of a temple.

Time on display.

Time on display.

A barge ran aground on the Mekong River.

A barge ran aground on the Mekong River.

Keep going forward and you will eventually get there or get run over.

Keep going forward and you will eventually get there or get run over.

One of the biggest differences between this part of the world and the west is how long things take to get done. If something takes x amount of time over there then expect it to take 3, 4, or 5x as long here—unless you have a well-connected local partner to fast track whatever it is you are doing in terms of paperwork or approvals. That’s for Saigon; it’s an even slower pace in Hanoi.

A simple task such as ordering at a restaurant might go a little something like this:

Person A orders.

Wait staff repeats Person A’s order.

Person A confirms.

Person B orders.

Wait staff repeats Person B’s order.

Person B confirms.

Wait staff repeats the entire table’s order.

Person A and Person B confirm.

That’s assuming the wait staff understood the orders right the first time. Getting the correct order on the table is a different matter entirely. 🙂

Even the fast food here isn’t really “fast” food (in the traditional sense) since Vietnamese families often fill various franchises around dinnertime, spending more time than required to just pop “in-and-out” for a meal. It’s a bit of a “badge of honor” to be seen in a western establishment for the average Vietnamese family because it shows they can afford eating there. Combined with the coffee culture here, people spend hours inside F&B shops chatting, talking, operating on social media, and generally being seen.

So, time has a different pace and value here than back west. If you take things here at face value then you will run the risk of wasting a lot of your time.

When working with locals, a common trend is overpromising and under delivering—especially when it comes to deadlines. You should not believe that something is done to the required specifications until you have seen it with your own eyes and have had time to review/test it.

Missing five deadlines in a three month period is a very real possibility here (a real example) and after a certain point the old adage comes to mind, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Not everyone, but many locals here are focused on short term results which is evidenced by driving norms, etiquette (try stepping off a lift and you will see), and not doing things the “right way” the first time because it would simply take too long. Problems in a process are usually due to a lack of planning until it’s almost too late and then it’s rush, rush, rush!

Needless to say, communicating effectively can be very difficult here. You can explain something via phone, text, email, in person, whatever and it still might not be done the way you expected or wanted. Sometimes, people might tell you “yes” just to get rid of you or to save face or because they don’t understand what you are asking and are trying to be polite. Try to ask someone for directions and you’ll quickly understand how pointless it can be sometimes.

Short of learning the local language, speaking slowly, and rephrasing the major points go a long way toward reducing miscommunication. Hiring an interpreter is also an option but not the best long term strategy. The longer you stay in Vietnam the more seemingly strange things will start to make sense to you—but it’s a steep learning curve unless you take the time to research Vietnamese culture and history (and that includes learning the language). Asking local friends for clarification will help you understand Vietnam as well but be careful how you phrase your inquiry less you offend them.

To add to the language barrier frustration, you might have trouble figuring out what is true and what is false since everyone’s favorite English word seems to be “yes.” For example, if you ask a local colleague to sign off on some items that s/he was to have completed already the response you get might be affirmative but the task might not actually be done. “Trust, but verify” should be the mantra for westerners operating here or else you will become mad with frustration and waste valuable time.

Time here is abundant for many people; for example, a typical lunchtime might be 1.5 to 2 hours with eating, recreation, and napping. The heat and humidity can negatively affect productivity but the cost of labor is inexpensive so productivity is not as much of a concern as it is in the west. Locals could underappreciate your time when it comes to meeting start times and having you wait around for them. However, you shouldn’t show up late to a meeting because you assumed your counterpart has a polychromic view of time as well—not all locals are the same. There are also many temptations and distractions from professional life so it can be easy to slip into some bad habits that might not be so available or accepted in the west. Balance between work and personal interests as well between stress and relaxation are essential to being successful in Vietnam (and everywhere but, especially in Saigon, it seems easier to jump off the deep end for some people).

We counted three welders on site.

We counted three welders on site.

Some Vietnamese Phrases That May Save or Waste Your Time

“You need to move slow if you want to move fast.”

Meaning: Don’t pester the person you need to get something done or else they will dig their heels in and operate even more slowly to spite your perceived meddling Let them work at their own pace—in the end it will be faster and less stressful. If you are answering to westerners for a project then this could be a problem for you.

“You need to spend money to make money.”

Meaning: Vietnamese are attracted to those who they believe are successful. It might be real, or it might be an image. It could also be a fatalistic approach to justify whatever crazy scheme is going on. Finding out what is really going on could take a lot of digging and time—better to move on or do some circular research via mutual trusted contacts.

“In the end it will be okay so if it’s not okay then it’s not the end.”

Meaning: Largely an excuse for deflecting criticism or remaining unfazed by concerns that are presented. It could be the case if there are other unknown actors (usually family) who will swoop in to save the project in the final hour. It doesn’t sound like a promising result if that is their best strategy, right?

“Don’t need.” (“Cannot.”)

Meaning: You haven’t convinced a local decision maker that your suggestion is useful. Try a different approach because repeating yourself will just waste everyone’s time.

For example, when the founders of an online food ordering website here went around trying to get local restaurants to “install a machine that would print out orders from the internet” they eventually pitched it as “a salesperson you don’t need to pay.”

That resonated with restaurant owners and led to the adoption of the machine and their success. If you get a “no” the first time, then ask a different way or provide a range of options that you are willing to work with.

“Not your job, not my responsibility.”

Meaning: You are working with the crème de la crème! Cut your losses and move on (thereby saving your time). If that is not an option then you had better get into “CYA” mode.

Different Approaches for Different Situations

Whatever the situation, if you don’t get the response you wanted then ask someone who has been in Vietnam longer than you have for some feedback—chances are they will have some good suggestions for you. At the very least, “talking out” your problem will allow you to simplify it as you explain it to someone else. If that doesn’t work then as they say, “experience is what you get when you don’t get the results you wanted.”

Remember, the challenges you will be faced with while working here will be a culmination of differences—differences of visions, standards, expectations, of course languages and culture, and ultimately, opinions. Just keep in mind that it’s all a learning experience and a valuable education for what challenges might again lie ahead in the future when working in Vietnam (and you will already have part of the solution for the next time!).

Prepare to move slowly (budget, timetable, travel plans, etc.) but don’t waste time here since you won’t be able to get it back. Above all, the more time you spend in Vietnam, the more efficient you will become as long as you maintain your high standards and don’t try to change the whole country. Always remain patient, calm, and professional throughout every situation—even when those around you are not because it’s one of the best ways to ensure that you won’t have a bad time in Vietnam. After all, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that you did the right thing.

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Like many countries, Vietnam has experienced stark and monumental changes: periods of colonization, expansion, and more recently, independence and renovation (doi moi). However, throughout its history there has been a general flow of people from the original northern areas near China to the southern Mekong delta. These migration patterns have helped shape regional (north, central, south) and cultural identities on national, provincial, and municipal levels. Today, these differences are worth noting because they should influence effective communication in different parts of this heterogeneous country. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are just two metropolitan areas that differ in Vietnam so if you spend some time here then you will learn just how varied it can be.

Enough Vietnamese settlers traveled south to modern day Ho Chi Minh City (which was then part of Cambodia and known as Prey Nokor) that it eventually became part of Vietnam in the 17th century. Even after the war between the north and south ended in 1975, many Northerners traveled south to seek better economic conditions since the north was still largely war torn and the south was in better condition due to American investments (prior to the renaming of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City which both names are used interchangeably today). And even today, some young Hanoians choose to go to HCMC in search of a career after graduating from university for a variety of reasons (more opportunities, more independence from family, a change of scenery, etc.).

So how have these trends impacted the Saigonese mentality? Well, Saigonese are known to be more entrepreneurial and are known as risk takers (after all, it’s risky to become a settler in search of a better life in a different place than “home”) compared to their Hanoian counterparts. Perhaps in part due to western (French and then American) business influence in the 20th century, there is generally better customer service in HCMC than in Hanoi. In fact, wait staff may be openly hostile toward customers in Hanoi, or at least slow to respond to customers’ needs. As a result, things move faster in Saigon than in Hanoi—at least on the surface.

In terms of business, there are smaller deals in Saigon but they are more certain and quicker to be completed. In Hanoi the focus is on larger deals but there may be more uncertainty even after the deal has been signed. Why? In general, Saigonese are spenders and Hanoians are savers. If you were to find five customers in Hanoi, then you would be able to find ten customers in Saigon for the same product/service. Saigon is definitely the economic center of the country; most multi-national corporations are set up in Saigon unless they need regular contact with government liaisons at various ministries.

So while Saigon is the economic center, Hanoi is the political and cultural capital which is a reason why Hanoians are reputed to make better managers than their more market-oriented Saigonese countrymen. Hanoians are also more pensive in terms of diving below the surface of situations, meanings, and intentions—but they can also be more abrupt in a way that might be interpreted as rude. The interesting (and misinformed) advice regularly given out in Saigon is to never do business with Hanoians because they will cheat their partners at the first chance. The people in Saigon who freely give out this advice are usually Saigonese who rarely visit Hanoi or foreigners who are repeating what their Saigonese friends told them.  While it is true that Saigonese are initially more open and friendlier than those in the north, Hanoians open up once a relationship has been established.

In terms of the atmospheres between the two cities, Saigon has quite an open layout with wide boulevards–but there is a lot of traffic and rush hour can be a nightmare, especially if caught in a storm on a motorbike. There seems to be just as much traffic in Hanoi but the streets are much narrower than in Saigon—perhaps half as wide, just as chaotic, and even smoggier than Saigon. However, there are more lakes and green space in Hanoi so the city feels “greener” than Saigon, which also has a river (with the same name) that runs through it like in Hanoi (Red River).

In terms of nightlife, everything is more opulent in the south and more reserved in the north. It’s safe to say that nightlife in Saigon and Hanoi are completely different; in Saigon some venues are open until sunrise and beyond. In Hanoi most places shut down at midnight as the police make their rounds. At sunset the Saigon skyline is colorful with light displays on buildings which are mostly situated in District 1. As a side note, the first (Keangnam) and third (Lotte Center) tallest buildings are in Hanoi with the second-tallest in Saigon (Bitexco).

On the street level, there is a more European feel in Hanoi–perhaps because of the historical relationship and student exchanges Hanoi has had with Moscow and other European capitals; after reunification it was not uncommon for Vietnamese to go abroad to study in countries such as Poland, former Czechoslovakia, former Soviet Union, and France (even before reunification due to colonial influence).

The European influence seems to extend to dress in Hanoi where its citizens tend to dress up more than the casual and laidback Saigonese. They certainly have the opportunity to wear layers during the winter when it can get quite cold—and most of the traditional buildings in Hanoi are not heated. Winter in Saigon is pretty mild, even at night. Even though Hanoians are more formal in their dress, Saigonese are flashier when it comes to material possessions such as luxury vehicles and jewelry.

Some people would say that, overall, Saigon is more suitable for westerners and both cities seem to attract different kinds of expats to each—for better or worse.  To truly understand Vietnam, one must spend time in more than one city because Vietnam is so different depending on the city or region. Some differences between the cities (and other places) may be immediately obvious, but others will take time to discern especially to a newcomer.

Northerners and southerners (and others) are able to tell one another apart pretty easily in conversations. One way to determine whether someone is from the north or south is by their accent. The northerners have a heavy emphasis on the “z” sound, even pronouncing the letter “r” as a “z” and the southerners prefer the “y” sound. Throughout Vietnam there are several major accents so it’s not just a “north” and “south” dichotomy—it’s just that those are the most apparent differences within the country since most foreigners in Vietnam visit either city.

The central and other areas (highlands, coast, etc.) all have their own distinct flavors and unique qualities. After all, there are more than 50 different ethnic groups in Vietnam. Despite the differences throughout the country, Vietnamese are more similar than they are different: they are all incredibly patriotic, they have a strong sense of family (certainly more than in the west), and if you establish and keep a good relationship with a Vietnamese person then it has the potential to last for a lifetime. Above all, not every person you encounter will be representative of the generalizations (and stereotypes) of their background—there are good and bad people everywhere—so an open mind, tacit knowledge, and a contextual awareness of every situation is vital. After all, it could be the only way to truly experience and embrace Vietnam and any opportunities that might unexpectedly come your way in this surprising country.